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Anselm Kiefer (B. 1945)
Anselm Kiefer (B. 1945)

Der Ölberg

Anselm Kiefer (B. 1945)
Der Ölberg
titled 'Der Ölberg' (center left)
oil on canvas
86 3/4 x 118 3/8 in. (220.3 x 300.7 cm.)
Painted in 1981.
The Estate of Ileana Sonnabend, New York
By descent to the present owner
Bordeaux, CAPC musée d'art contemporain; Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; Berlin, Hamburger Bahnhof; Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna; Museo d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto; Geneva, Musée Rath; Tokyo, Sezon Museum of Art; Sendai, Miyagi Museum of Art; Hiroshima, Fukuyama Museum of Art and Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art, Collection Sonnabend: 25 Années de Choix et d'Activités d'Ileana et Michael Sonnabend, October 1987-February 1991, p. 286 (illustrated in color).
Rovereto, Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, The Magnificent Obsession, October 2012-October 2013.

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

In epic painter Anselm Kiefer’s Der Ölberg, a silvery painter’s palette soars above a ravaged landscape, its progress observed by an angel. Monumental and weighty, textural with a heavy impasto, Der Ölberg is a superlative example of the artist’s distinctive painterly approach. The work takes the optimistic stance that painting can indeed be healing and restorative, even in fraught sites. Falling into Kiefer’s body of theological work, the present painting references the Mount of Olives (“Ölberg” in German), a mountainous sacred site in Jerusalem’s Old City that frequently features in the Old and New Testaments. Through the palette symbol, a major motif in Kiefer’s work, the artist grapples with the role—moral, cultural, and spiritual—of art and artists; in the present painting, the ascending palette indicates that art functions to spiritually link heaven and earth. With an expressionist materiality and herculean symbolism that confer moral weight, Der Ölberg explores the artist’s spiritual—even sacred—role as a shaman or healer.

The work takes as its subject a traditional painter’s palette, rendered in a ghostly silver with broken lines emanating from its graphic form. The palette emerges from a torn, barren landscape, rendered in a thick impasto. The land’s viscerally pitted surface is likely referencing the major Jewish cemetery at the Mount of Olives, the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world. A golden-haired auroral angel looks on, its arm outstretched toward the palette as if resurrecting it. In the distance is a silhouetted depiction of Jerusalem’s Old City in blue and brown, alluding to the stunning views of the city that the elevated Mount of Olives provides. The classic artist’s palette depicted is central to Kiefer’s personal iconography. It allegorizes pictorial representation as it symbolizes the role of art and artists in society and history. Kiefer often renders the artist’s palette in heavy lead, sometimes even going as far as to incorporate a physical palette into his work. These artistic choices suggest the weight or burden of the artist’s duty to represent the past. In the present painting, however, the palette is rendered in oil paint and appears weightless. When Kiefer depicts a winged palette, he is often alluding to Icarus, who wanted to soar to another realm but crashed when his proximity to the sun melted the wax of his wings. The palette in Der Ölberg, however, is not burdened with wings; its ascension seems secure, as if at the moment of painting Kiefer had total trust in the palette’s spiritual ability to “transform reality by suggesting new visions” (A. Kiefer in M. Auping, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art Fort Worth, 2005, p. 171). Art has persevered and transcended.

Born into a very Catholic family, Kiefer grew up familiar with the bible. In the 1980s the artist became deeply interested in Jewish mysticism, the Old Testament, and Israeli nationhood. Der Ölberg is from the body of epic work dealing with these themes. A visit to Jerusalem in 1983 was particularly influential for Kiefer, who has spoken about the incredible experience of standing on the Mount of Olives and thinking about Jesus crossing through the gates below. He was struck in that moment by the extent to which the iconography of his Catholic upbringing was tied up with Judaism. Kiefer incorporates these sedimentary layers of universal history into Der Ölberg, which depicts in thick layers of paint an ancient religious site and modern-day pilgrimage destination that is important to many people across faiths. With the palette symbol, the artist brings his personal faith in the spiritual power of art into the mix.
An exemplar of the oeuvre that has won Kiefer international recognition and acclaim, Der Ölberg suggests a divine vision for the future with grace, sagacity, and formidable artistic mastery.

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